NC Marriage Ruled Valid Despite Lack of Marriage License: How This Affects Estates


While case law is often fact-dependent and, thus, might not prove directly applicable to one’s own circumstances, it nevertheless provides precedent that informs state court decision-making in similar cases. Such may be true for a North Carolina case in which, the day after a North Carolina couple’s wedding, the husband died. He did not leave behind a will, and the couple had not obtained a marriage license. According to North Carolina intestacy law, a surviving spouse is entitled to shares of the decedent’s real and personal property. North Carolina courts denied the wife’s claim to her spousal share since no marriage license existed.

However, the wife filed an appeal, and the appellate court judge ruled that the absence of a marriage license does not invalidate a marriage, thus allowing the wife to claim a spousal share. Since the court validated the marriage, the wife is likely also entitled to:
  • Spousal rollover of the deceased husband’s IRAs (if she was designated a beneficiary or, potentially, if the account was paid to the estate, of which she were the sole beneficiary)
  • Elect portability of the unused portion of the deceased husband’s estate tax exemption
Although the decision to validate a marriage without a license may not be recognized in all states, it is an important case for North Carolina residents and could affect North Carolina estate disputes and spousal shares for other couples.
The couple noted in the case above had previously been married to each other and had divorced before their second marriage, the latter marriage being the one that did not involve a marriage license. It is not yet known whether a similar ruling would be issued from similar facts in a first-marriage situation. Explore how remarriages affect inheritances.
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